Review: Child 44

Set in Russia in the 1950s, where murder apparently doesn’t happen in the Communist utopia. Russian Secret Military Police officer Tom Hardy starts to doubt this when the child of a family friend is killed and his superiors refuse to listen to his suspicion that murder, not train accident is the cause of death. After failing in his duties to investigate his own wife (Noomi Rapace) as a subversive, the couple are sent to a remote hell-hole called Volsk, far away from anything of importance. However, it is there that Hardy furthers his investigation of what turns out to be some 44 such cases of child deaths that he believes to be the work of one serial murderer. Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, and Vincent Cassel play the various authority figures.

Based on a novel by Tom Rob Smith, this is a fictionalised version of an infamously ugly story from Russian criminal history. Directed by Daniel Espinosa (the uninteresting “Safe House”), this 2015 flick is supposed to be inspired by the case of real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, which had previously been told to middling effect in “Citizen X” (featuring a miscast Jeffrey DeMunn as Chikatilo). Scripted by Richard Price (“Sea of Love”, “Freedomland”, John Singleton’s “Shaft”), this approach proves even worse, as for about 90% of its length the story appears to be about anything but a serial killer. Being fictionalised, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that what the film is concerned with for much of its length just isn’t interesting, despite the best efforts of Tom Hardy. If you’re gonna deviate from history, make the deviation worthwhile. This is really stodgy, plodding, and muddled stuff with very little going for it beyond Hardy’s solid job and the best performance by Joel Kinnaman to date (playing a cowardly, ambitious shithead officer). It takes more than 70 minutes (!) before Tom Hardy finally wants to investigate the serial killer. By that point it was too late, I stopped caring because the story up to that point had been Tom Hardy playing a dour Russian version of Col. Landa from “Inglourious Basterds”, hunting down subversives or whatever.

What the hell went wrong here? I think the blame has to fall on either the original novel or Price’s scripting of it. The dour, oppressive tone doesn’t much help, but by setting such a wide scope, the film simply takes far too long to arrive at its real destination and loses the audience along the way. All of the little subplots add nothing except running time, and the editing is pretty horrendous too. This is a mess that is far too slow and far too prone to tangents for a story that is meant to span many decades (My plot synopsis above makes it seem far more simplistic than it really is). Even fictionalised, the story here is too tangential to work, and when you come to the ending you realise just why the story has been fictionalised. I won’t reveal that reason except to say that in addition to changing the time period of the killings, they’re also re-writing history here under the guise of it being ‘fictionalised’. It’s rather insulting I think, and don’t even get me started on the climax involving several people rolling around in the mud like an 80s action-thriller or something. This film goes wrong in a bunch of different ways.

Paddy Considine is pretty good as the Chikatilo-esque killer, who at least at that point in time looked fairly ordinary (If you’ve seen pictures of Chikatilo in his final years, boy howdy was he freaky-looking). The film tries to put the character in the context of what he went through as a kid (as well as Hardy’s character going through much the same at a young age), but even that isn’t very well done, either because there’s simply not enough room for it to breathe here. Vincent Cassel ends up thoroughly wasted, but given what a slow mess it already is, giving him more screen time would’ve made this a true disaster.

A real misfire that has no idea what it wants to be, and takes far too long to figure it out. The cast can’t be blamed, but this should’ve been so much better. Cut out the prologue with Jason Clarke, and in fact start the film somewhere around the point where Hardy and Rapace are relocated. Do that and you’ve got a flawed but cleaner and better film. I’d certainly imagine the book (a best-seller) plays out a bit better. As is here, it’s pretty stodgy, overly tangential stuff despite being loosely based on one of history’s sickest and most notorious serial killers.

Rating: C


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